You know it’s going to happen. Your parents watch too much NewsMax, your brother supports the Cowboys, and your little sister got sucked into some multi-level marketing scheme involving fake fingernails. One teenager’s gone all purity-ring, true-love-waits; another has at least one earbud tuned to Machine Gun Kelly at any given moment and might be failing sophomore year — again. Your aunt believes in Xenu and claims that Scientology has changed her life. Your other aunt’s a little too into crystals, candles, and uneven hems, talks a lot about energy, and you suspect may have once hexed your grandmother. You will have to sit down to eat with these people at least twice in the coming months. And you need blackbelt-level skills at hard redirect of awkward conversation.
Everyone has a thing, and everyone’s going to bring up that thing (except Machine Gun Kelly kid, who wishes he were anywhere else, much like you.) This will be cringy and painful if you do not stop it from happening. So when your parents begin spouting outright lies about Joe Biden, or your little sister tries to sell you fake fingernails, or some fresh-faced teen begins lecturing you about chastity, here’s how to cope.
Immediately Identify Your Allies
Your spouse, Machine Gun Kelly kid, and Aunt Glinda the Good Witch can be counted out to not only cringe along with you, but actively help you dig out of that cringiness when it happens. But there are different kids of allies. Mother and Father Q might be down with MLM Sis, but MLM Sis might be uncool with True Love Waits. Cowboy Brother will not STFU about the Dallas Cowboys, but since he’s not an actual Texan, he can be trusted to derail Mother and Father Q. These people can help you by back-channeling and asking questions as you drag everyone out of a social mire.
The Old Standby of Awkward Conversation: Topic Change!
Awkward conversation can often be derailed with a simple topic change. My therapist actually had me make a list once, by family member, of possible derailments that avoided ugly triggers and got them engaged in something (anything!) else. I suggest you do this now. Do Mother and Father Q love to discuss their grandchildren? Does Cowboy Brother like to talk about coaching Little League? Maybe Purity Princess is all about prom and Scientology Aunt can be counted on to ramble about crafting. Whatever. Your interest in their topic is irrelevant. Plan ahead and get ready to nod often.
Be Assertive, Sort of
“Oh, we always end up arguing about that. Let’s talk about… (insert other prepared, generic subject here that no one can possibly disagree with, like dogs).” Awkward conversation acknowledged and derailed! Hopefully, one of your allies, like Aunt Glinda, will follow up with some story about her black cat named Grimoire. You can always substitute other words for “arguing,” including “disagreeing,” “monologuing,” or “throwing mashed potatoes at each other.”
Compliment Someone Out of Awkward Conversation
You can do this on the fly. CNN recommends it because they say people listen more closely to praise than to criticism. You can disrupt an entire argument with a random, “Oh my God I just have to say, Mom, before I forget, did you go somewhere else to get your hair done? Because it looks fabulous.” Then you can kick Machine Gun Kelly under the table and he can mutter something like, “Yeah, Gramma, looks great.”
No, seriously. There has to be some pressing need for silverware, or pie, or a fake bowel movement. Hide for a few minutes. When you return, one of two things will have happened: your partner and Aunt Glinda will have saved the day, or that awkward conversation will have gone totally off the rails and everyone will be yelling. It’s about fifty-fifty, and a risk you must be willing to take in the name of self-preservation.
Just STFU And Deal With The Awkward Conversation
No, really. This is an option. It won’t kill you. Allow someone to ramble. It’s odious and annoying and takes up your dinner conversation. You’ll envy Machine Gun Kelly kid his single ear bud. While they ramble, either because you’ve chosen to let them or because you can’t stop their nonsense, cope with that awkward conversation by:
- Back-channeling: nod your head, say, “Uh-uh,” and add a sentence or two of encouragement along the way. Encouragement? Well, they aren’t going to STFU anyway, so you might as well might make it as easy as possible on yourself.
- Paraphrasing what they’ve said: “So what you’re saying is… (summary).” This makes them feel heard and appreciated, and if they feel heard and appreciated, you can follow with a segue and derailment with help from Aunt Glinda, your partner, and identified allies.
- Asking questions: “I don’t quite understand. Can you explain again how Xenu fits into the whole auditing thing?” You may want to prepare softball questions for trigger subjects in advance. Once you ask a few questions and people feel heard, you can derail more easily.
You’re going to deal with some annoying people and their equally frustrating pet topics. Face it. Such is your lot in life unless you want to cancel the holidays and flee to Myanmar, which no one recommends, and you’re too poor to afford the Seychelles. Annoying people translates to awkward conversations. Like Scar tells us in The Lion King, be prepared. That’s a movie about a family, as you know, but let’s not examine that comparison to your Thanksgiving dinner table much closer.
Except Aunt Glinda gets to be Rafiki.
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